By: Kayla Meyers
The sun goes down
As the city lights
Pave their way
Through the darkest night
An old man cries
Never thought, to ever think twice
Of all the had, of all he lost
A selfish life
I guess comes with a cost
NEW HAVEN-NEXT LEFT
Jimmy flipped on his blinker, allowing a semi-truck to pass him before merging into the north-bound lane. The low rumbling of the traffic on the interstate highway hummed outside the window, tiny drops of rain pattered softly against the windows. Usually when he drove, especially on long trips such as this one, he would have been accompanied by Bob Dylan or The Who, but not today. Today he had too much to think about. The early morning sky had awoken in a bright, vibrant shade of blue, but as he moved closer to his hometown it had flattened to a dull slate-gray. He barely noticed the change, and it was almost subconsciously that he had turned on his windshield wipers as the first droplets of rain began to fall. In fact, from the time he reached the highway and began westward he had been driving on autopilot; every turn and lane-change purely instinctual. His eyes stared, dark and pensive, at the endless stretch of black road.
Finally, the white sign with the large black letters that declared: YOU ARE NOW ENTERING NEW HAVEN came into view.
"Home, sweet home," he murmured to himself, barely aware he had spoken aloud.
He descended the off-ramp which led down to the first four-way stop in town. It was just past 3:15, so he had just managed to miss the 4:00 rush-hour when school let out and people started to get off work.
A sweeping nostalgia washed over him as he passed between the Willow Branch Apartment complex and gas station at the edge of town. Visually, it hardly resembled the place he had spent the first twenty-one years of his life in; the town square of antique shops, bakeries, and family owned restaurants had been replaced by a modernized strip mall of fast food chains, swanky clothes boutiques, and corporate banks. Olson's Food & Drug was now replaced by a Safeway supermarket. A pang of regretful sadness ran through him.
Olson's was run by an elderly couple, Ernest and Cecilia. Mr. Olson was a thin, frail-looking man who stood at a mere five-foot-four. Despite the fact that he came to America with his family when he was only eight-years-old, his Germanic origin was still quite evident, especially in the way his tongue rolled and trilled on ‘r' and ‘l' sounds. Bushy, black eyebrows drooped above his deep-set chocolate eyes. His cheeks were sunken in with age and time, and were always a blazing, feverish red on his high cheekbones. A mustache curled across his thin upper-lip, always neatly trimmed. Not-so-neatly trimmed was his hair; Mrs. Olson had been cutting it herself for the past fifty-two years, and due to her increasingly bad eyesight and shaky hands, his bangs always fell on his forehead in an uneven slant like fringe on a lamp-shade in his grandmother's house. Mr. Olson's love and affection for his wife kept him from ever complaining about it, and he always managed to seem eager when time came for another trim.
Cecilia was a robust Italian woman who was considerably taller and much sturdier than her husband. She wore brightly colored, flowered dresses which she had designed herself, the hem of each one matched Mr. Olson's uneven hair. Her white hair was always pulled back in a tight bun and fastened by a silver butterfly clip. She wore too much rouge and painted her hazel eyes with powder blue eye shadow which flaked into her long eyelashes. She was in every way the typical Italian woman, running the bakery in the store and always insisting that you take a cinnamon roll or Danish on your way out. Her voice was almost more masculine than her husband, and she was brazenly loud with a hearty laugh. If she was irritated enough (which was usually only when the neighborhood children would sneak in through the back door in the kitchen and attempt to steal a loaf of freshly-baked French bread) she would grab a broom from the storage closet and chase after them, waving it furiously in front of her and yelling in Italian. Despite her tough exterior, she was a warm, loving woman who was devoted to "Her Ernie" and treated every one as if they were her own.
From the time he was old enough for his mother to let him walk there by himself, every Tuesday he made a trip to Olson's to pick up groceries and medication for the week. On each of these trips, Mr. Olson would slip him two Tootsie Rolls and a cream soda. Jimmy would boost himself up on one of the stools at the long, white marble counter, his legs swinging six or more inches above the black-and-white tiled floor. He waited in anticipation as Mr. Olson took a tall, wide-mouthed glass from the stack on the back counter, took it over to the fountain and pulled the handle of the tap up with a quick jerk of his wrist. The soda flowed out of the nozzle in an amber-colored waterfall, foaming and bubbling as it filled the glass. Just before the glass looked in danger of overflowing, Mr. Olson snapped the tap back up and set the glass next to Jimmy's arm. His hand fumbled around in his apron as he pulled out the two Tootsie Rolls and laid them next to the soda.
"Now remember," he warned kindly, his eyes glinting beneath his eyebrows. "Don't tell your mother." He gave Jimmy a sly wink and a playful smile.
"Okay, I won't!" Jimmy promised earnestly. Mr. Olson dropped a red straw into the glass and Jimmy began to drink excitedly. Sometimes if the store was particularly quiet, Mr. Olson would make himself a root beer float and bring over the canister of red licorice ropes from near the candy rack, then sit next to Jimmy and tell him stories of when he was in the army. Jimmy stared up at him in fascination, listening intently at every word.
"Ernie!" Mrs. Olson would scold as she came over from behind the cash register, her hands on her wide hips. "You stop scaring him! He's going to have nightmares for weeks!"
"Oh, hush up, woman. I'm in the middle of a story," he would say in annoyance, waving a hand at her.
"Ernest Arnold Olson!" She enunciated each word, narrowing her eyes at him. Suddenly, he looked like a child being reprimanded by his mother.
"Sorry, dear..." He mumbled quietly, staring down into his root beer.
"That's better," she said, smiling in satisfaction. "And you've had enough licorice," she added pointedly before disappearing back into the kitchen.
He furrowed his brow, but then sighed in resignation and closed the canister before he stood up. "I suppose she's right, I should let you get home." He glanced toward the door to make sure his wife wasn't within earshot, and then winked at Jimmy again, "Come see me later, then I'll finish the story."
Jimmy would smile and nod agreeably, although he wished he could sit and listen to Mr. Olson all day. He watched as Mr. Olson put the licorice back in place, finished off his float, washed and restacked the glass, then went back to work.
After the last drop of cream soda had been coaxed from the bottom of the glass, Mr. Olson gave Jimmy the groceries and medication, and Jimmy dropped two dollars into the old man's hand.
"There you are, my boy," Mr. Olson said, smiling warmly down at the little boy.
"Thanks, Mr. Olson!" Jimmy grinned back at him. He gathered the bags up in his hand and headed for the door. Just then, Mrs. Olson came out of the kitchen carrying a tray of warm sticky buns and raspberry filled doughnuts.
"We'll see you again soon, Jimmy!" She called after him. "Tell your mother I said hello!"
He walked out into the cool afternoon air, heading down Main Street and then up the hill to Willow Road. As he walked he peeled the wrapper off one of the candies and put it in his mouth, then slipped the other into the back pocket of his jeans.
Now he had to physically shake the memory from his mind and realized he had been smiling. In his mind he could still smell the medicinal scent that came from the pharmacy, mixed with lemony Lysol and the sweet aroma of Mrs. Olson's baking. He loved them both. Come to think of it, Mr. Olson was the closest thing Jimmy had ever had to a real father. Even after he left, he had sent them a Christmas card to them every single year, but last year it came back with a ‘Return To Sender' stamp. He figured they had probably finally retired and moved.
A few blocks away, the library had also fallen into the clutches of the beast that was reconstruction. The once conservatively tall, two-story dark brick building was now sleek and white, and stretched out from where the original structure had stood to the edge of Kasack Way where the out post-office had been. He remembered on Fridays after school he would walk down to the post office to drop off his mother's bills, and then walk over to the library. Aubrey Lassana, the raven-haired nineteen-year-old that lived across the street worked at the information desk on weekends, and Jimmy would sit in the chairs by the Science Fiction section, pretending to read and watching her. She was the prettiest girl he had ever seen, and in his nine-year-old heart he was in love with her, the low-cut tops and denim skirts she wore. Every now and then she would walk his way to re-stack a book, as she passed she gave him a radiant smile, her hair falling around the curves of her face in soft waves. He quickly averted his eyes, frantically reading the same sentence over and over, his cheeks flaming red.
He laughed quietly to himself. Three weeks before school let out for the summer, he overheard his mother talking to his aunt.
"Oh, did you hear the news? Aubrey Davis and David Witcham are getting married this summer. He found a job in Tennessee, they'll be moving there after the wedding."
That night, Jimmy was barely able to eat dinner, and for weeks after that he avoided the library like the plague.
Finally, he turned down Cobalt Road towards the elementary school. The playground stood empty, cast in dreary bluish-gray light; a graveyard of his childhood, a graveyard filled with phantoms. One of them was him, a seven-year-old fair-haired boy with his eyes tightly shut and his arms stretched out as he walked across the top of the monkey bars. His sister had demonstrated how easy it was, and not to be outdone, he took her challenged when she dared him to do it.
"I bet you won't," she goaded, her eyes glinting in the high-noon sun.
"Will too," he said with defiant ferocity, then turned and walked valiantly toward the monkey bars.
The entire third and fourth grade crowded around the jungle gym, watching with grim faces as if he were Evel Knievel attempting to jump across the Grand Canyon with no safety gear. He took his time climbing to the top, and then slowly brought himself to a standing position between the first and second rungs. The ground below swelled then receded beneath him like in the Road Runner cartoons he watched every Saturday when the Coyote chased him to the edge of a cliff and Road Runner found himself staring down a seventy-five foot drop, inches away from plummeting to his death. His courage wavered and he crouched down to his knees, grabbing onto the sidebars, his heart pounding in his ears. For a moment he considered backing down. After all, enduring taunts from his sister and classmates couldn't be worse than breaking his neck, could it? He thought so until he opened his eyes and saw his sister, front and center in the crowd, her arms crossed over her chest expectantly and a knowing smile on her face. He let out his breath; it billowed out in a white cloud like a thought bubble in a comic strip. Steadily, he stood upright again and spread his arms out, closing his eyes. He stepped carefully on the first four rungs, then as his confidence heightened, his pace quickened. Almost sure he was near the end; he stuck his foot out expecting to the last bar to descend the ladder to the bottom. However, in reality he was little more than halfway across, and overstepping caused his heel to slip against the next bar. He tumbled forward, the bars slamming into his groin as he fell. It felt as if someone had driven a screwdriver into his left thigh. Frantically he tried to grab onto the sidebar to catch himself, but his hand slipped and he was left hanging there with his legs twisted around the bars and his upper body dangling. The ground swelled and receded again. He was stuck. Finally, he wriggled his left leg free and went plummeting to the ground with a sickening thud. Jimmy landed on his stomach, the full force of his bodyweight slammed down on his arm. A red-hot pain exploded from the wrist to the elbow, as if someone had lit an M-80 and set it off inside his arm. The bark dust scratched at his face, leaving tiny splinters in his cheeks and eyelids. Warm, salty blood flooded his mouth, and he realized he had bitten through his tongue. His bottom lip was swollen and throbbing. He began to spit, and blood-soaked clumps of bark dust flew out of his mouth. Mrs. Klaussan's shrieking, panicked voice came from somewhere above.
"Jimmy Oversteen! What do you think you're doing?! You other kids, get back to class! Go on, get!" Her rough, strong hands were on his shoulders then, turning him over on his back. The drilling pain shot through his groin again and his arm screamed, protesting the sudden movement. He continued to spit blood and splinters.
The next minute he was sitting on the bed in the nurse's office as she immobilized his arm, his mother standing over him, crying and asking him what he was thinking over and over. His sister stood in the corner of the room, her face pale with horror. He spent the next week with his arm in a cast and a shiner.
He flexed his hand as a twinge runs down to his elbow, the kind of aching pain that you feel when you dream you break your arm, then awake to find it asleep and tingling; a phantom pain.
Hey, remember me?
I remember you walking away
Hey, remember me?
I remember you walking away
At last, his mother's house came into view. He turned left and pulled into the driveway, shutting off his engine. The house was exactly as he left it when he was twenty; a cream and black trim, two-story, gable-faced house with sunburst wooden décor and triple multi-pane fixed sash. The shallow bay on the second floor had two double-hung multi-pane windows with an arched center section. The first floor had a bay window with a center single-hung window with art glass transom. A porch swing still sat by the door, swaying lightly in the wind as if some unseen person was sitting there, rocking back and forth. Even the basketball hoop he got for Christmas when he was fourteen was still hanging above the garage. It was as if someone had pasted an old photograph in the middle of a computerized, state-of-the-art 3D model; it seemed completely out of place, yet a warm sense of comfort washed over him as soon as he saw it. For the first time since he'd arrived, he finally felt like he was really home.
As he began to climb out of the car, a voice came from the porch. "Jimmy?"
He looked up, although he already knew it was his mother. She came down the steps and walked toward him hesitantly, as if she wasn't sure if he was actually her son. She was wider in the hips than he remembered; her blue dress seemed too snug around her midsection. As she came closer he saw her hair, drawn up in a bun, was almost completely silver. It had been fifteen years since he had been home, but he felt as if he were looking at a woman who had aged an extra twenty-five; though she seemed grateful to see him, her eyes looked at him with a tired dreariness of someone who has seen everything twice over in her lifetime, the deep lines in her face a testament to each of her long, hard years. She stopped in front of him, studying him closely.
After a moment, he smiled. "Hi, mom."
She grinned then, her thin lips stretched out across her tight skin, the crows-feet around her eyes crinkling. Then she was hugging him then, squeezing him tightly. He wrapped his arms around her, hugging her just as tight. When they stepped back again he saw her eyes were misty with tears. She held him by the shoulders.
"Thanks," he said, and kissed her cheek. A few awkward moments passed before he finally got his things from the trunk and followed her wordlessly inside.
The inside was unchanged as well. Jimmy felt as if he had stepped through a time portal and reappeared in the world of his childhood. Smells of roasting chicken and baking bread rushed toward him, mixing in with the slightly musty scents of time and age. A large poinsettia in a green, hand-made pot stood between the entryway and the living room. The same wallpaper of vertical green stripes and sunflowers covered the walls between the baseboards. A chair, loveseat, and couch set formed a semi-circle around the deep mahogany coffee table which his grandfather had given his mother as a wedding present, all in the same white polyester slip-covers with blooming, dusty pink roses. The grandfather clock stood in the corner near the fireplace, the gold pendulum swinging back and forth. Pictures covered the walls leading all the way down the hallway to the kitchen door.
His mother began to slip his jacket off his shoulders. "Here, take this off, relax for a while. I made your favorite dinner. Your room is all set up upstairs..."
He nodded, hearing but not really listening. Her voice droned in the background as if coming from the end of a long tunnel in a dream. He surveyed his childhood home, taking in every smell and sight. His eyes settled on the banister leading up the staircase to the second floor. Suddenly, a new memory flooded in; he and his sister, 9 and 11, left alone in the new house after school. Their mother worked two jobs, so she usually got home around dinnertime on weekdays. They decided it was time to ‘break in' the new staircase, and had gone down into the basement to retrieve the unpacked boxes and their mother's laundry basket. Once they were upstairs, they struggled to get themselves into the boxes. Finally they decided they were never going to fit together, so one at a time they crawled inside while the other pushed the box or basket, while the other gave them a good, hard shove. The box tumbled down the stairs to the first landing, crashing into the wall. The pusher would chase after it, reposition it, and send it flying to the bottom. The one who was inside the box would then crawl out, dizzy and giggling hysterically, and they would run back up to the top and start over. On Jimmy's fourth or fifth turn, he crawled inside the laundry basket and sat Indian-style with his head tucked between his knees, covered by his arms. Theresa crouched behind him and pushed him to the edge, then shoved him down the stairs. The basket thudded against the wall, and Jimmy realized mildly that a chunk of it fell into his lap, leaving a black gash in the wall. She bounded down the stairs after him, set him up against, then shoved him down the second flight, both of them red-faced with tears squirting out of their eyes from laughter. Then, horrifically, the basket hit against something else, although he knew he was nearly a foot away from the front door. He lifted his head and found himself staring up at the shocked, horrified face of his mother, eyes wide and mouth agape. He stopped laughing immediately; Theresa had gone completely silent behind him.
After that they were both grounded for two weeks, and were never allowed to stay home without a babysitter again. When they fussed and questioned why their mother wouldn't trust them, she looked at them with dismay. "When you show me you're both responsible enough to be by yourself, then we'll see."
"...Jimmy, are you all right?" His mother's voice pulled him back from his thoughts. She gently touched his cheek, her eyes deep with concern. "Maybe you should go up and lie down for a while. You've been driving such a long time, I bet you're exhausted."
Well, that much was true, he had been driving a long time, but the truth was he didn't feel the least bit tired. He had reached the point of sleep deprivation when you try to close your eyes only to find them wide open a moment later. He gave her a reassuring smile and patted her hand away gently. "I'm fine, mom."
She looked uncertain but didn't argue; instead she took his bags and started upstairs. Family portraits lined the wall; the first of him at four with his left front tooth missing and his sister in pigtails, the one slightly above it with him in braces at twelve... Each one marked the changes of their family, but one thing remained constant; it was always just the three of them.
The upstairs guest bedroom had a yellow-musty scent and the air felt thick and un-breathed in the last ten years, but it was bright and homely with its butter cream walls, white down comforter on the bed, and antique lamps on the nightstand. She took the bags from him and set them on his bed.
"I know what you're thinking," she said with a light laugh. "My tastes are old-fashioned at best, but it should do for now, and you have your own bathroom this way."
"Does he know I'm coming?" Jimmy asked, still standing in the doorway.
He saw his mother's shoulders stiffen for a moment, then she continued to take his things out one-by-one, fold them, and set them in the drawers neatly. "I talked to Stacie today. Frank has to work and Abigail has come down with a touch of the flu, but she said she'd be here either today or Saturday."
"Mom," he said, now walking over to stand next to her. "Does he know?"
She sighed, finally giving in, and looked up at him. She suddenly looked very small, and very afraid. "Yes," she told him reluctantly. "He knows. I called him yesterday to tell him you'd be here. Jimmy, are you sure you want to do this?"
No, he wasn't sure he wanted to, but they knew he had come based on a need to. When his mother had called him the previous week to tell him his father's lung cancer had returned and they weren't sure how much longer he had, there was no question in Jimmy's mind that he had to see his father. There were things he needed to know, questions that had gone unanswered for too long.
He didn't answer now, but he didn't need to. She dropped her eyes again, folded and tucked away his last shirt, then straightened up. "Dinner will be ready soon," she said before she started to leave. "Get some rest."
"Actually, I thought I would go for a walk before dinner," he told her. "I've been sitting in that car for two days; I need some fresh air."
He saw her eyes clouded over with that worried fright, but she nodded and went downstairs without a word.
It was raining a bit more heavily now, the drops collecting in small pools on the street, but he left without a jacket anyway. The rain felt cool and refreshing on his skin, he allowed the frigid air to fill his lungs, glad to be out of the thick, still atmosphere inside the house. He walked to the end of the street and turned left, heading down towards Tallulah Street. A few years ago this was known as The Poor Side, and from the looks of it, it still was; townhouses and run-down apartment buildings that had been all but forgotten by the city and shunned by The Up-Towners. People who lived in these neighborhoods were mostly ones with low-paying jobs like janitors or waitresses or plumbers, or businessmen who never fully recovered from the crash of the economy. The kids from these parts were usually the ones most likely picked on at school; there was one girl in Jimmy's third grade class, Mallory, who was bullied so much by the school cronies that before the year was over her mother, a cook at Ed's Diner, had pulled her out of school. During the last few years Jimmy lived here, as bigger supermarkets started buying out the smaller business in town, the Olson's store began to suffer. Soon Mr. and Mrs. Olson had to sell the house they had lived in for the past fifty-some years and move to The Poor Side. It broke Mr. Olson's heart, but he was a stubborn man with a great deal of pride, and refused to ask for handouts.
Now Jimmy found himself standing in front of the dilapidated townhouse where the Olson's resided when he left home. The royal blue paint was chipped, in a few spots there were large, angry splotches of rotted wood siding. The gate squeaked loudly as he pushed it open and walked up to the front door. He knocked three times and stood with hands stuffed in his pockets. What am I doing here? Of course they don't still live here. I'll just turn around and go back home...I'm leaving right now. But instead, when there was no response the first time, he knocked again four times. Finally he heard footsteps drawing closer and the lock click open. A pretty, tall redheaded girl with blue-gray eyes appeared in front of him. She eyed him suspiciously, keeping the door halfway closed.
"Yes?" She asked, her eyes apprehensive and, he thought, slightly afraid.
"Oh, I'm sorry," he said dumbly, shifting back and forth uncomfortably on his feet. "I was - Well, I was looking for someone I used to know. A couple - Mr. and Mrs. Olson?"
"They're my mom and dad. Why are you looking for them?" She frowned thoughtfully, studying his face, then suddenly her eyes brightened. "Jimmy? Jimmy Oversteen?"
"Hi, Sarah," he said, smiling. My, if you would have told me ten years ago that the freckle-faced, gangly little girl that used to chase me around the playground would turn out to be such a beautiful woman... "Did your parents move? Where are they living now?"
She looked at him apologetically. "Jimmy... I hate to have to tell you like this, but mom and dad have been gone this past five years. Mom had cancer and we lost Dad to a heart attack six months later."
Despite how close he had been with them, he was surprised to find a lump growing in his throat as she said this. His stomach tightened into knots. He swallowed thickly and finally managed a barely audible, "Oh... I'm sorry...." Should've just gone home...
Several agonizing moments of silence passed before them before she spoke again. It couldn't have been more than ten seconds, but to Jimmy it felt like a millennium. She glanced at his wet clothes and dripping hair. "Would you like to come in? I'll make you some tea and you can warm up, you're soaked."
He smiled at her again. "Like mother, like daughter."
She pursed her lips in a tight smirk. "I'll take that as a compliment, now come in before you catch pneumonia."
He laughed as she unlatched the screen door and let him inside. There was a dank, swampy smell laced with the scent of tobacco. In the days before people became aware of second-hand smoke it was normal for people to smoke inside, and it wasn't uncommon to see Mr. Olson in his beat up armchair, puffing on a cigar or his pipe. His chair was still there, along with the light yellow couch Mrs. Olson bought in Italy on their honeymoon, a little coffee table and armoire with a small TV. A stack of envelopes sat on the table, and as they passed to the kitchen, he saw the red OVERDUE stamped letters across each one, which explained why she was so wary of him when he first came to the door.
The kitchen was brightly lit, done all in light blues. She waved him over to the kitchen table, then grabbed the teapot and started to boil the water. He watched her out of the corner of his eye. She really had changed; her light blue jeans hugged the soft, womanly of her hips snuggly, the blouse she was wearing showing off a classy amount of cleavage, a sapphire cross necklace dangling above her breasts. She made small-talk for a while - he told her about being an architect and living in California - until she brought the tea over and set a cup in front of him. He thanked her and took a sip, the tea was overly sweet and burned his throat a bit, but it warmed him up immediately.
"After Dad had to stop working he and Mom lost everything. They did their best, but it was hard for them, then Mom got sick. Dad tried to take care of her, but it was too much for him and he had to put her in a nursing home. Without a pension and no income, he couldn't afford to get by let alone pay for all of her medical needs. My husband and I offered to help, but you know how stubborn he was."
"You're married?" He asked, cocking an eyebrow at her. There was no ring on her finger.
She smiled bitterly. "Divorced. Anyway, after Mom died I eventually convinced him to come and stay with my husband and I, but he was never the same. He just had no will to keep going, you know? Six months later he had the heart attack. I've always thought maybe that wasn't what really killed him; it was a broken heart." She blinked and seemed to remember she was talking to him, and laughed softly. "Sounds silly, I guess."
"No," he said. That excruciating silence fell between them again. He sat forward, putting his chin on his hands and narrowing his eyes at her thoughtfully. "So, divorced, huh? You got kids?"
"A little boy, Trevor, he'll be eleven in March," she said, picking absentmindedly at the tablecloth. "He lives with his Dad during the school-year, and then he stays with me during the summer. I think it's easier this way, while I stay here and try to sort out all of Mom and Dad's debt."
He nodded understandingly. "Makes sense," he agreed.
"So, what about you, Mr. Hot-Shot? Did you ever get married? Have kids?"
He stared down into his mug, fiddling with the handle. The topic of relationships always made him uncomfortable for reasons even unbeknownst to him. "No. I was seeing someone a while ago, but with work and everything..." He trailed off, unsure of how to finish.
He thought she would make a joke, but she didn't. Just looked at him sympathetically and nodded. "I know what you mean. Mom and Dad always made it look so easy to be married. Fifty-three years and even near the end they still acted like they were on their honeymoon. They were so lucky to find what they had with each other." She paused to take a sip of her tea and brush a piece of her hair behind her ear. "They really loved you, you know. My dad thought of you like a son. They kept every Christmas card you sent. Mom even bought all those architectural magazines you were in when your career started to take off. How's your mom?"
"She's doing pretty well, I think. Tired, but she's all right."
"So, I guess that means you're just passing through?"
"I came to see my dad. He's dying."
She sat forward, resting her chin on her hands, listening intently.
"He has cancer and the doctors say it's spread too far for them to do anything about it. They really don't know how long he has. And it's..." He sighed and brought his hands down hard on the table, causing the tea to slosh around in his mug. "I'm almost thirty and I've never even talked to the man. I know my mom doesn't think it's right but it's something I feel I have to do."
She sat back smoothed out the rumples in the tablecloth. "I think it's a good idea."
He looked at her, surprised. "You do?"
She seemed bewildered by his surprise. "Well, sure. You know, I don't know how I would have gotten through these past years without mom and dad if I didn't have my memories of them. Everyone deserves closure, and if you feel like this is the way for you to get it, then you're doing the right thing. He is your father."
It suddenly dawned on him that being here with her was the first time he'd smiled since he got the phone call from his mom that his father was dying. "I've really missed you, Sarah."
"Well, maybe you oughta come around a little more often then," she said amiably, then laughed that sweet, throaty giggle.
"I should," he agreed. He glanced at his watch. "I should probably head back, Mom is probably wondering where I am." He got up and began to pick up the dishes.
She waved him away. "No, no. Don't worry about this; I'll take care of it." She followed him to the door. She leaned languidly against the doorframe. "It's good to see you again, Jimmy. Take care of yourself."
He lightly pecked her cheek. "Thanks for the tea, and the talk."
"Anytime," she told him, her cheeks slightly flushed.
He stuffed his hands in his pockets and walked down the steps to the walkway and headed toward the road. Before he reached the gate she spoke again.
He turned to look at her.
"I hope you get what you're looking for when you talk to your dad."
"Thanks," he said quietly, then stepped onto the sidewalk. When she called after him again he was halfway down the street and almost didn't hear her.
"Keep in touch, all right?"
"I will!" He called back, raising his hand to wave at her before he rounded the corner.
That night he lay in bed, his eyes aching to close but unable to sleep. Golden streaks of sunlight began to poke through the curtains just as he managed to drift off into a restless, troubled sleep. An hour later, he was awake again.
His mother was still asleep when he quietly treaded downstairs and left the house. It was another gray morning with sheets of dark clouds blanketing the sky. The houses in the neighborhood stood dark and quiet, the thick curtains and blinds shutting out the early morning light. As he drove by he noticed Sarah's car was gone. He remembered she said she was a waitress, and most mornings she had to get up with the sun to open. Just beyond her house the road curved right and he followed it. He had one more stop to make on this trip down Memory Lane before confronting the reason he came.
The same old street
Just a different name
Same old house
Just the family's changed
The windows stained
Freedom spelled by a man in chains
The silence is all we have to give
And the memories of a life I wished we lived
Driving through the street he had lived on until he was nine felt like sinking into the ocean; the memories swam frantically through his mind, filling up his lungs until it was almost impossible to draw in breath. It was only until after he passed and began down Main Street again that he realized his knuckles were white from clutching the steering wheel. The house stood silent, shadowed by the increasing pink light of sunrise. A pink and white playhouse stood in the front yard next to a double swing-set, an abandoned tricycle was tipped over by the garage. Inside he imagined the people living there; a blissfully married husband and wife lying tangled up in each other's arms and white sheets, while a little girl and boy slept in the adjoining rooms, cozy and sleeping in pleasant dreams. Inside his mind a new memory tried to break through, struggling through the tide of his thoughts. He paddled away from it, holding his breath to keep from drowning, but it crashed over him and pushed him farther and farther down. This was a scenario he knew well; it was the scene that always managed to find its way inside his dreams, the ones where he woke up soaked in a cold sweat and fighting for air. Being only four years old at the time of the event, part of him always wondered if it was an actual memory that he had somehow managed to suppress over time, or something his own imagination had created from stories from his mother and sister. A man - the one in the black-and-white photo he had found in the attic as a teenager that had remained the only image he ever had of his father - stumbling out of the door and down the steps of the porch. A young woman - his mother - bursting out behind him, tears streaming down her face. She ran after him, grabbed him by the arms and yanked him back, screaming in desperation rather than anger. He shoved her away roughly and continued to the Ford idling in the driveway. Neither of them seemed to notice their young toddler standing in the doorway, watching. The engine of the Ford roared as it revved and sped down the street. His mother came back to the house, her face tear-stained with thick streaks of mascara running down her face. She picked him up and crushed him tightly against her body, squeezing him until his eyes watered. Theresa stood by the door the rest of the day, staring out into the empty afternoon with the occasional tear falling down her face. Neither of them ever saw their father again. For the first three or four years afterwards he would receive a birthday card with no return address and ten dollars inside, but after his eight birthday when they moved to the new house, they stopped. His mother seemed relieved when they did.
His eyes remained glued on the house as it passed until he had to crane his neck to see it. Lost in thought, he almost didn't see the little boy that flew in front of his car on a bicycle, just missing it by a few inches. He swerved quickly to the left and stopped at the corner. In the rear-view-mirror the boy's mother was hugging her son fiercely. She shouted something angry at Jimmy before dragging the boy back across the street, although he didn't hear exactly what she said. Jimmy folded his arms and leaned his head against the steering wheel as he tried to slow his racing heart. Suddenly his stomach felt as if he had just ridden a Tilt-A-Whirl at an amusement park about seventeen times, and for a moment he was sure he was going to be sick. Finally, slowly, he raised his head and released the parking break, pulled back onto the road and continued on.
The tall, sprawling building with its endless banks of windows was the only place in town that was not associated with any recollections for Jimmy. It conjured up no images of the past or brought any old feelings bubbling up to the surface - probably because this was the one place he had never been. After parking by the entrance he walked into the large, open lobby. He passed by the information desk; he knew where he was going. As with driving here, instinct was leading him. He found the bank of elevators and took them up to the second floor. All was quiet on the adult ward except for the quiet shuffle and hushed murmurs of nurses on their morning shifts. Florescent panels of light washed over his face, casting him in ghastly, exhausted shadows. Out of the corner of his eye he saw the nurses whisper something in each other's ear as they watched him cautiously, but none of them came over. He walked to the last door at the end of the long hallway and paused before pushing the door open without knocking.
From all that you made
That you lost
Or threw away
Trade it in for a brand new life
But I can't
Can't let go
Can't turn around
Hold my head high and walk away
The hospital room was small, with a flowered border along the dusty pink walls, an uncomfortable, hard bed, and TV suspended from the ceiling in the left corner. By the window a blue rocking chair, facing out. A silhouette outlined by the light turned the chair slowly toward the door, and he found himself face-to-face with his father. For a minute Jimmy stood frozen, dumbfounded and unsure of what to do next. In his mind he expected to see a cardboard cut-out of that old, grainy photograph he'd stolen from the chest in the attic, but what he found was a full flesh and blood man with gray, thinning hair and skin like the hide of a leather wallet. A century seemed to pass between them, both of them unmoving and unvoiced. At last, the man slowly got to his feet with the aid of a dark wooden cane with a handle molded to his hand. Jimmy realized how small and frail he was, and for a moment he was sure his legs would give out underneath him and he would have to dart forward to catch him. He made it over, however, and stood in front of Jimmy, studying his face closely.
"Hi, Jim," his father spoke first, his voice a gravelly, feeble croak.
"Hi, dad," he answered, the words came out in a cracked, hoarse whisper. He cleared his throat against the back of his hand.
His father motioned for him to sit down, then hobbled back to his rocking chair. Jimmy sat across from him and once again they stared at each other in silence. Before this trip Jimmy never realized how much he hated silence.
"Your mother said you were coming."
"I wanted to see you."
Jimmy's father sat forward and poured himself a glass of water from a yellow pitcher sitting on the desk. He raised an inquiring eye at Jimmy and Jimmy waved his hand ‘no'. He drew in a deep breath and spoke: "Why?"
His father set the pitcher down slowly and looked at him, his eyes uncomprehending. "'Why?'" He repeated the question, puzzled.
"Why did you leave?" He clarified, not taking his eyes away from his father's eyes. He hadn't intended to blurt the question out this way, but it tumbled out of his mouth before he had a chance to stop it.
His father took his time sipping his water, then set the glass beside him and looked back at Jimmy with his hands folded. "You look good, Jimmy. Your mother tells me you've made quite a name for yourself as a... uh, architect, is it? You've done real well."
Jimmy narrowed his eyes. "Why did you leave us, dad?"
"Jim..." His father sighed. He always hated that nickname. "There are just some things you don't understand, all right? Sometimes a man does what he has to do."
"No matter who gets hurt in the process?" Jimmy snapped bitterly. "I'm a grown man, dad, so don't treat me like some naïve little boy. I asked you a question, and I want an answer; I think I deserve one, don't you? Now, tell me. If I don't understand, then please, enlighten me."
He saw something in his father's eyes then that he wasn't anticipating; complete astonishment. Jimmy realized he had caught his father totally off-guard. But, what was he expecting? Did he sincerely expect Jimmy not to ask?
"Things were different when your mother and I got married, Jim..."
"Stop calling me that," he interrupted sharply.
There was that look, the one of a man who has been suddenly ambushed by a tribe of cannibals in the middle of the jungle. He continued slowly, the ice in his glass clanking as he shook them around. "We were just out of high school, and I wasn't planning on having a wife and family at 19 - neither of us were, to be fair. The town was going through hard times, money was tight -"
"So, you took the easy way out and ran away," Jimmy finished darkly.
"As I said; I did what I had to do," he replied defensively, then sat back and gazed out the window passively. "That's no way for kids to grow up."
"And growing up without a father is?" He countered vehemently, his arms crossed over his chest. He knew he was acting petty, but he didn't care - He came all this way for answers, and he was going to get them one way or another.
"You have a point," his father admitted. Jimmy thought for a moment he would continue, but he just sat there, twiddling his thumbs idly.
"So, if you don't want to answer that, then I have another..." He said, trying to sound more diplomatic. "Why didn't you ever come and try to see Theresa and me? Even if you and Mom split up, we were your children and we didn't do anything wrong, so there was no reason for you not to want to be a part of our lives."
"Your mother wouldn't allow it," he replied simply, as if Jimmy should have known all along.
"That's a cop-out and you know it. She may have kept you from seeing us, but you never even tried."
For the first time since they began talking, his father smiled; it was a small, crooked smirk that Jimmy didn't like. "There's a lot that your mother hasn't told you."
"Then why don't you tell me?"
"I told you not to call me that."
"Jimmy," he corrected himself, then waited for Jimmy to nod his approval before he continued. "A year after your mother and I finalized our divorce, when you were five, I filed for custody of both you and your sister, but she refused and forced me into a settlement outside of court, along with an order that I never try to contact either of you ever again."
Naturally, he didn't believe him. It was absurd; why would his mother try to keep his father from seeing him? To protect him maybe, but she had to have known that for a boy, growing up without his father could only hurt him in the long-run. He remained quiet this time.
"When you were thirteen I tried again, even came back here so I could see you. But again, your mother refused to even let me speak to you over the phone. Because of our agreement, her lawyers told me that if I tried to contact you, I would have to give up my parental rights to you completely. After I left, I tried to send you letters, but your mother must have destroyed them, and I lost track of you completely when you moved."
Jimmy stared at his father, stunned and speechless. Someone had just taken a hammer to everything he ever believed, and he found himself frantically trying to discern the pieces and put them all back together again. When he was a child, he discovered if he was having a particularly terrible nightmare, all he had to do was shut his eyes tightly and count to ten. A moment later he would find himself floating back to consciousness, discovering he was in his bed, and the horror of his dream was safely locked back into his subconscious mind; he was back in a world where everything made sense. He wished he could do that now; he wished to close his eyes and find himself back in his apartment in Los Angeles, the images that haunted his dreams far away on the shores of imagination. He realized he actually had closed his eyes when the hospital room and his father's face swam back into focus.
"I know you don't believe me," his father said, for the first time actually sounding apologetic. "You have no reason to. There's no excuse or reason I can give that would be good enough, and there aren't enough ways to tell you I'm sorry. But, whether you choose to believe it or not, I did try and I wanted what was best for you and your sister. I know it's too late now, but you need to know that."
Neither of them spoke for a long time after that. Throughout the rest of the morning they rode on top of the peeks of conversation before dropping off into even longer valleys of nothing. Eventually he glanced up at the clock: 12:45.
"I should go," he said quietly, beginning to stand up.
"Before you leave, I have something for you." His father stood and walked to the small set of drawers next to the bed, fumbled around until he found what he was looking for, then shuffled over to where Jimmy stood by the door. The old man flattened his sons hand, then laid a pocket-watch; the case was gold with small engraved designs around the edges. On the back were his father's initials: T.J.O.
"I know I should have been there, so this is for you, so you'll remember where you need to be before it's too late."
"Thanks, dad," he said. He put his hand out and his father shook it firmly before Jimmy left.
Hey, remember me?
I remember you walking away
Hey, remember me?
I remember you walking away
Two days later Jimmy stood beside his mother and sister while a minister read a passage from the bible. After his father's casket had been buried, he led his mother to Theresa's car and helped her inside. Once the people had dispersed and the last of the cars pulled away, he walked back up the soft, green grassy hill to the top where his father's grave was marked by a stone cross. He stared off down the hill across the rows of grave-markers to the horizon, the sun was a brilliant orb of red flame, lighting the sky in vibrant oranges and pinks. Dressed in a black suit, he kneeled down and laid a white rose next to the cross.
"Bye, dad," he said to the quiet evening.
He stood and walked back to his car. As he pulled away he glanced in the rear-view-mirror and almost swore he could see a figure standing on the hill, a black silhouette against the bright sky.
An hour later he was back on the freeway, heading toward California. The pocket-watch dangled from the mirror, glinting and winking in the sunlight. As he drove away he turned up the radio and began to sing along.
© Copyright 2016 Kayla Meyers. All rights reserved.
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